By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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I was so sick of electric guitar," declares John Common. "I remember being on stage at the Oriental, and I was literally in the middle of a solo, packed house, great show — this is supposed to be why we play music, right? — and I was so bored, I consciously had to fight myself to not take my guitar off mid-song and walk off stage. That's how burnt out I was."
By then, Common had been playing music for two decades, beginning with his first high school band in Florida, a cowpunk combo called Bunkhouse Jones. After college, music took a backseat to corporate job that he abanoned after three years for life on the road ala Kerouac, a journey which took him from Vermont to Kansas, where he disassembled an old farmhouse one board at a time. Eventually, Common landed in Denver, where he fronted the alt-country combo Rainville and released a pair of well-received solo albums. By 2007, his creativity was tapped and Common wondered if it was time to just call it a career.
"I've written songs and played gigs and made records," he explains. "I've put bands together, loaded gear through the snow and wound strings. I've stuck posters on poles and glad-handed people, trying to get them to come to shows for fucking twenty-plus years. And I'm still doing it! So honestly, when I look at my life, on the one hand, I wonder what's wrong with me sometimes. Seriously."
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But instead of stopping, Common just pressed on. And from the sounds of Beautiful Empty, the debut from his new band, John Common & Blinding Flashes of Light, it's a good thing he did: Empty is his best work yet.
The idea of taking a quieter approach, one that didn't require distortion, ended up reigniting Common's passion. Before retooling his sound, he set about looking for kindred spirits, and the first one he found was Jess DeNicola, a stunning vocalist who's peformed with acts like Jen Korte and the Loss, Blue Light and Tiny Television. Common and DeNicola met near the end of 2007, when Common had just finished playing a show in the Ubisububi Room in the Thin Man's basement. Common was loading out, mentally already in Prague, where he was planning to travel in a few days, when DeNicola struck up a conversation outside the bar.
"I had heard her sing, and like everybody else who ever hears Jess sing, I was floored," Common remembers. "I had been looking for an amazing female vocalist, one with whom I could mesh and maybe write together and record some songs together for, like, no shit, fifteen years. I'd been looking for Jess for fifteen years — only I didn't know it was Jess."
The two made plans to get together when Common returned from Europe. "I knew that I wanted to do something markedly different on this record," says Common. "So when I got back, I was like, 'I'm going to find that girl and at least check this out.'"
He reconnected with DeNicola shortly thereafter, and the chemistry between them was so profound, and so immediately evident, that they ended up performing a few songs together later that night at the Meadowlark. "We just knew right away. It was effortless," recalls DeNicola. "I sing in so many different things — and I love singing with everybody I sing with — but I just felt like I had finally found a home for my voice, a place where I could be safe and grow."
Jimmy Stofer was at the Meadowlark that night. Like DeNicola, he lends his talent to several ensembles around town — and having heard Common's previous albums, the in-demand bassist now offered his services for the new band. With Stofer and DeNicola in place, Common handpicked the rest of the members: first Wes Michaels, then Carl Sorenson and, finally, Jon Wirtz. "If I wrote the story," he offers, "it would sound like the screenplay for The Dirty Dozen or maybe Inglourious Basterds."
"He explained that he wanted to put together a band where 'each individual is just a bad motherfucker' and then record an album," recalls Wirtz, who was already playing in other projects with Stofer and DeNicola. "While I was highly offended by his language, I was flattered to be taken into consideration as one of John's 'motherfuckers.'"
Wirtz was struck not just by Common's language, but by his genuine interest in everyone's input — which, in turn, made the whole arranging process fun. "While many songwriters like to assume that their decisions are unquestionably the right ones — if for no other reason than the fact that their name is the band name — John asked our opinion with every aspect of the song," Wirtz marvels. "To me, this just proved that he was a well-rounded musician."
"I remember we were working up songs doing pre-production for the record," recalls Common. "I was looking around the rehearsal and thinking, 'Holy fucking shit! I've got a band of motherfuckers! If we can't make a great record with this, it's nobody's fault but mine' — because every person is just stellar and stunning at what they do, just all artists."
While recording, Common asked each member to create intensity with emotion rather than volume and to leave space for one another in the arrangements. "We wanted it to feel, as much as possible, like a real band of human beings playing in a wooden room," he explains. "We wanted it to sound like real people conversing with one another, musically, like having a conversation."
They succeeded, because the first thing you notice about Beautiful Empty is its spaciousness: The voices of Common and DeNicola blend together seamlessly and never strain to compete with one other, much less with the other instruments. On the song "Same Scar," for example, moaning cello lines harmonize gracefully with an accordion as it inhales and exhales gently, weaving an impressively elegant backdrop.
But Common casually deflects any praise for the recording. "When an architect drives by a building that he's designed, he didn't build a goddamn thing in that building, and yet he feels pride," he muses. "And that's how I feel about this record. I mean, I did build some things — I played piano and sang and played guitar. But a huge amount of what makes this record sound amazing, I didn't touch it."
Perhaps. But he is responsible for the songs, and this batch is among the best he's written thus far. The lyrics on Beautiful Empty are every bit as affecting as the instrumentation, and as varied. On "Wide Open World," when Common sings the lines "Liars love leavers and losers leave lovers," his turn of phrase is as clever as it is poignant. On "My Neighborhood," as he relates the heartache and struggles of his neighbors, he's completely straightforward; on "The Man Who Could," he paints vivid pictures as he sets the scene of "the beautiful ones who smoke along the banister, watching the mating dance swirl around you down below."
From the songs to the sound to the album art — rumpled bedding arranged to resemble a landscape — and the promotional photos, Common clearly put a great deal of thought into every aspect of this project, which he readily admits. "There are some interesting fallacies that are viewed as truths in indie music," Common says. "One is the picture of the naive, unaware, brilliant savant, a lonely songwriter who just sort of bumps into brilliant lyrics — I just don't fully buy that. Another is this concept that you have to be one or more of the following: broke, suffering, alone, bereft of any opportunities other than music — like 'I have to make music because it's all that I have and all that I am.' I think that's one way to do it, but there are so many other ways to make valid art."
With a band of talented mofos, for example.
No matter where the road leads from here, you can bet that art will continue to be Common's driving force — whether he likes it or not. "Whenever I think about the next thing in my life, it always involves moving and then some other form of creativity," he concludes. "I'm too addicted to creating for me to give that up. I will not give up that drug. It's been in my bloodstream for so long now that I don't think I would have any chance of being happy if I wasn't directly connected to creating."